Kenneth Bae, a US citizen who was held prisoner for more than two years in North Korea, has publicly thanked former NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman for ranting about his case on CNN in 2014, saying the attention generated by the tirade helped secure his release.
Bae, a native South Korean who immigrated to the US as a teenager with his family, was detained by North Korean authorities on November 3, 2012. At the time, Bae had relocated from a suburb of Seattle, Washington, to China, and was working as a guide leading groups of mostly American and Canadian tourists on trips to the Hermit Kingdom.
He was picked up in Rason, a port city in the country's far northeast corner that features a special economic zone created by the Pyongyang regime to promote tourism and trade. No explanation was given initially for his arrest, but Bae is a devout Christian, which led to speculation that his faith aroused suspicion in a country where religion and proselytizing are strictly outlawed.
He was sentenced to 15 years in prison in April 2013, and was forced to perform hard labor. While the cases of other Americans held in North Korea received extensive media coverage, his was largely overlooked. Then, in January 2014, Rodman, who first visited North Korea in 2013 for a basketball game with the Harlem Globetrotters in a trip that was chronicled by VICE on HBO, appeared on CNN and basically suggested that Bae got what he deserved.
"Do you understand what he did in this country?" Rodman asked CNN's Chris Cuomo. After the host noted that Bae hadn't been formally charged with any crime, the exchange became heated, with Rodman saying, "No, no, no, you tell me, you tell me. Why is he held captive here in this country, why?"
When Cuomo again challenged Rodman and said he didn't think there was evidence Bae did anything wrong, the basketball player replied, "I don't give a rat's ass what the hell you think."
Rodman, who later apologized and said that he had been drinking at the time, faced a deluge of criticism from US politicians and human rights groups over the remarks. Bae was subsequently freed in in November 2014 along with another American, Matthew Todd Miller, after a visit to Pyongyang by US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Bae spent a total of 735 days detained in North Korea.
This week, the 47-year-old Bae, who is releasing a memoir about his imprisonment, told CNN that Rodman's on-air outburst was a pivotal moment that prompted US authorities to step up their efforts to free him.
"I want to thank Dennis Rodman for being a catalyst for my release," Bae said. "Because of his rant, media attention for my plight was increased, so if I meet him one day I want to say thank you for what he has done. He really brought international attention for my plight."
Six months after he was detained, North Korea accused Bae of preaching against the regime of ruler Kim Jong-un in Korean churches in the US and South Korea, working with an evangelical organization to set up "plot-breeding bases" in China to topple the government in Pyongyang, and smuggling propaganda and supporters into the country through his tour company. He was also accused of plotting "Operation Jericho," an alleged scheme to bring down the North Korean government named after a biblical city.
In a statement released last month to promote his book, Bae said he "made a terrible mistake by carrying a portable hard drive containing hostile, anti-North Korean material by accident."
Citing Korean-language reports, the website NK News previously reported that Bae had smuggled in a copy of a National Geographic documentary that was secretly filmed in North Korea, as well as a book about human rights violations in China and North Korea.
Bae's family said previously that he has lost more than 50 pounds in captivity, and Bae told CNN this week that he faced grueling conditions in North Korean labor camps. "I worked from 8am to 6pm at night, working on the field, carrying rock, shoveling coal," he said. A diabetic, Bae was reportedly hospitalized in North Korea for a range of medical problems, including kidney stones and loss of vision.
He said his North Korean captors repeatedly taunted him and told him that nobody in the US was working to secure his release. He recalled one official telling him, "'No one remembers you. You have been forgotten by people, your government. You're not going home anytime soon. You'll be here for 15 years. You'll be 60 before you go home.'"
Rodman hasn't spoken publicly about Bae's remarks. The basketball player hasn't been back to North Korea since January 2014, when he went on a trip funded by the Irish gambling website Paddy Power. He subsequently came under investigation for allegedly providing Kim Jong-un with luxury gifts, including bottles of vodka and whiskey, that were banned by UN sanctions.
Two US citizens are currently detained in North Korea. Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, has been held prisoner since January for allegedly committing "hostile acts" against the country. He was on a tour of Pyongyang when he reportedly tried to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel in the middle of the night. Kim Dong-chul, a South Korean-born businessman who previously lived in Virginia, has been held since October 2015 on allegations of espionage.
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